Dilettante's Diary

Feb 13/08

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The date above is the date on which this page was started. The most recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: Leonard Gilbert (Piano); Manon Lescaut (Opera); Lars and the Real Girl (Movie); Monarchy-The Royals at Work, Part Two (TV); Waitress (DVD); Emore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing (Book);

Leonard Gilbert (Piano) Class 1-03 (Concert Group), Kiwanis Music Festival, St. Cuthbert’s Anglican Church, Toronto, February 18/08

It has been about fifty years since I had anything to do with a Kiwanis Music Festival, so this was something of a nostalgic dip into the past. My main reason for attending, though, was to hear the astoundingly talented pianist, Leonard Gilbert (known to his friends as Yun Yun). I had been very impressed on hearing his program – Bach, Chopin, Ravel – at a private concert at his teacher’s home about a month ago. (Full disclosure: his teacher is a friend of my teacher.) On the larger festival piano and in the resonant ambiance of the church, his performance was even more stunning.

For this class, there was no age limit and participants were required to present a mini-recital of no more than twenty-five minutes. Of seventeen competitors, seventeen-year-old Leonard took first prize, with a mark of 96. Adjudicator Michel Fournier, in his remarks on Leonard’s performance, set aside the usual critique to state simply that it was a remarkable recital and that Leonard’s playing had touched him. Monsieur Fournier said one of the best aspects of Leonard’s playing is that he is not afraid to show his "vulnerability" as a musician.

Maybe that’s what made me feel vulnerable as a listener. This has never happened to me before at a concert, but, during Leonard’s Chopin, I was almost wanting him to stop. The playing kept getting more and more passionate, to the point that you figured you couldn’t bear it any longer. Shades of Madame Verdurin, one of the most colourful of Marcel Proust’s creations. When invited to hear Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the voluble Mme Verdurin protested that she couldn't bear the emotional upheaval: "It would take me a week in bed to recover." (Not an exact quote, but more or less the gist of her remarks.)

Well, as far as I can tell, there are no bruises or broken bones in this department this morning but I will never forget having been shaken up so thoroughly by this young man’s playing.

 

Manon Lescaut (Opera) by Giacomo Puccini, HD Live Broadcast, Metropolitan Opera; James Levine, Conductor (Saturday, Feb 16/08)

I had been thinking there wouldn’t be as big a crowd on hand for this production as there had been for Romo et Juliette [see review Dilettante’s Diary, Dec 8/07]. That show had extra drawing power in two respects: on top of the perennial popularity of the story, the broadcast was the season opener. So it was good to see that two cinemas at our neighbourhood theatre were again packed for the fourth of the Met’s HD Live Broadcasts this year.

Manon Lescaut isn’t as familiar to me as Massenet’s Manon. Some of the arias from Massenet’s version are firmly entrenched in the mind. There turns out to be a lot of gorgeous music in Puccini’s take on the subject but the work’s dramatic structure isn’t so pleasing. Much of the important stuff takes place between acts; it’s almost as if you have to know the story from other sources. And the dancing lesson in the second act has to be one of the most boring passages I’ve ever encountered in an opera: obvious time- filling so that plot mechanics can be worked out behind the scenes. However, the last act – the two dying lovers abandoned in the wilderness of the US desert – struck me as sublime: almost a set piece in itself, with none of the stagey falderol that mucks up the earlier parts of the opera.

Karita Matila (Manon) and Marcello Giordani (des Grieux) are two stars whose work I don’t know very well. Although both are well beyond the youthful state required for the roles, you just had to cast yourself back to the days before video broadcasts when that sort of thing didn’t matter. The important thing is that they both sing splendidly. Ms. Matila has a rich, soaring, dramatic voice well suited to the role. Signor Giordani may not have the most finesse of any tenor in the business but he belts out those piercing high notes with spectacular panache.

The most delightful aspect of these broadcasts, though, is the packaging. I love the backstage stuff: seeing the scenery moved, hearing the stage manager giving cues just before the curtain, watching the performers wait for the act to begin. Rene Fleming makes a lovely, charming host for the intermission interviews. Ms. Matila, talking about the work required to keep her forty-seven-year-old body fit for the on-stage challenge, came across as a pleasant, unassuming person. So much so that she demonstrated the splits that she was going to perform in the second act. Signor Giordani’s comments on the character of des Grieux came out refreshingly blunt and candid. Why was des Grieux so obsessed with Manon? Two reasons, said Signor Giordani: craziness and sex. The coolest candid camera moment came just before the final act when Ms. Matila was pacing the stage, limbering up for the ordeal ahead, then suddenly caught the camera out of the corner of her eye and muttered, "Oh, you’re filming!"

 

Lars And The Real Girl (Movie) written by Nancy Oliver; directed by Craig Gillespie; starring Ryan Gosling; with Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Kelli Garner, Patricia Clarkson.

All I knew about this movie beforehand was that Ryan Gosling was getting lots of praise for his role as a nerdy guy who has this thing with a life-size sex doll. What I didn’t know – or expect – was that he names the doll Bianca, introduces her to family, takes her on outings with him, and wants everybody to treat her as real. The local family doctor, who pinch-hits as a psychiatrist, explains that the best way for everybody to deal with Lars’ delusion is to play along.

I found the first half hour very difficult to watch. It was too friggin preposterous. Everybody trying to act natural with that stupid, plastic doll sitting there with her blank look and her mouth hanging open. Eventually, though, the movie started working for me. And that could be precisely because it was so freakin weird. You had to admire the film-makers for pushing through such an outrageous story. That got you thinking about what they might be up to.

The first thing that came to my mind was the fact that, as kids, we all had imaginary friends and stuffed animals we treated as real. Just suppose that game carried over into adulthood – what would that mean? Still, I was afraid this was going to turn into one of those movies that present a simplistic, life-affirming solution to serious psychiatric problems – you know, the ones with the teary scene where the therapeutic break-through happens. I was also dreading that corny shtick where the whole town pulls together with a great show of communal good cheer to overcome some crisis.

The movie has aspects of those themes but it somehow rises above them. It’s about something bigger. Lars’ issues, clearly, are about things other than the doll. (Sex has nothing to do with it, as far as we can see.) At one point, when some of the townspeople are being especially kind to Lars, one of the women tells him, "This is what people do." That seems to come as a revelation to him. Me too. I began to think about how we deal humanely, for the most part, with all sorts of uncomfortable social situations. There’s the person who is unspeakably fat, the one with the accent that’s hard to understand, the one who dresses strangely, the one who is unclean, the one who talks to himself, the drinker, the curmudgeon, the hypochondriac, the philanderer. Aren’t we always concealing what we think, pretending everything’s ok, when we’re with these people?

Generally, I’m not terribly impressed by actors playing nutcases. It’s usually too easy an opportunity to show their acting chops. But Ryan Gosling manages this one without ever resorting to any showy acting. He always seems just exactly who he is – a good-looking but very odd guy who has a strange inner life. All the supporting roles come up to the same high standard. Emily Mortimer as the sister-in-law is sympathetic and affectionate without being cloyingly so, i.e. she’s still a real woman. Patricia Clarkson does her mature, attractive thing as the wise, shrewd doctor. Kelli Garner, as a colleague in Lars’ office, hits just the right note of unaffected ingenuousness. 

Paul Schneider deserves special notice for his great work as the older brother, the person who has the hardest time putting up with Lars’ delusion. Mr. Schneider blew me away with his charistmatic screen presence in All The Real Girls (2003) but I haven’t seen much of him since then. He has a gift for presenting the charming, funny, cool guy, a very contemporary young male who is open-minded and liberal, but who still has his hang-ups. In one scene, he tries, with some inarticulate mumbling, to explain to Lars what it means to be a man – while chopping veggies and folding laundry: a wonderful piece of writing and acting.

In fact the only performance I didn’t much like was Bianca’s. For me, that vacuous stare nearly ruined every scene she was in. But I suppose it wasn't her fault. She was just doing her best to make an impression in a part that was, after all, somewhat under-written in terms of dialogue.

Rating: B (where "B" = "Better than most")

 

Monarchy: The Royals At Work (Part Two) BBC Documentary, CBC TV (Sunday, Feb 10/08)

I admit it – the first installment of this documentary [see review Dilettante’s Diary, Jan 30/08] didn’t leave me so ambivalent that I couldn’t force myself to take a look at the second one. And this one gave me a somewhat better feeling. More pictures of the Queen smiling, being gracious. And the panoply of the Opening of Parliament, the history and all went down well: the business about the rabble from the House of Commons being invited to attend the Queen’s speech in the House of Lords; how the members of the Commons slam the door in the face of the royal messenger, when he comes to summon them; the fact that the constitutional monarchy is a sort of compromise between inherited nobility and the rights of the masses; the role of the Lord Chancellor; the jewels on the crown, including some worn by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

And yet, and yet.....is it history and pageantry that we want? We can get that in school. What we really want to know is what it feels like to be the person behind the most famous face in the world. What is it like to have people deferring to you all your life? How do see yourself when everybody else sees you as the centre of everything? Do you have any concept of what it is to be a normal human being? To get a handle on all this, I’d want to see a bit more of the private life. Who is the Queen when she’s at home? What does she do in her down time? At the very least, give us a glimpse of how the private life merges with the public one. How does the Queen get from her living quarters to the stately reception rooms where we see her on duty? Are there secret hallways? Hidden doors?

And yet again.....! Do I honestly approve of this business of looking at somebody as being special simply because of an accident of birth? Does it really do the human race any good in the long run to consider one person highly elevated above everybody else? And what about all that pomp and prestige – does it serve any truly human values? They claim it’s all about patriotic pride but does trumpeting my country over yours lead to any good in the end? Some of the Queen’s most avid fans do not give much cause for being hopeful. That, however, could be a case of one’s supporters being the worst advertisement for one’s cause – a situation that has dogged many a good person’s legacy. (Jesus comes to mind.)

Stay tuned to see what effect the next installment (Jan 24) has on my nascent Republican radicalism.

 

Waitress (DVD) written and directed by Adrienne Shelly; starring Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Andy Griffith, Adrienne Shelly, Jeremy Sisto, Cheryl Hines, Lew Temple

What an odd little movie. Keri Russell plays a waitress in a picket-fence town somewhere in middle America. Her obnoxious husband gets her pregnant, then she and her obstetrician get the hots for each other.(I’m not breaking my promise to reveal only minimal plot here, because all this happens in the first ten minutes.) If you look closely, so much about this doesn’t make sense. In the first place, the hubby (Jeremy Sisto) is such a scumbag that it’s impossible to see why this woman puts up with him. And we don’t learn anything about why the doctor (Nathan Fillion) falls in love with her. Come to that, who ever heard of a restaurant where a waitress has enough time to make amazing pies – a new one invented every day?

And yet, there’s a kooky charm about the whole piece. Everything seems slightly off-the-wall, keeping you not quite sure what to expect. Take that high-key colour scheme: all impossibly bright and cheerful. It’s almost as if you’re being warned that this is a confection. Still, the waitress’ friendship with her ditzy co-workers (Adrienne Shelly and Cheryl Hines) has a wacky but authentic ring to it. And when one of them asks the grouchy restaurant manager (Lew Temple) whether or not he’s happy, he dishes up a surprisingly thoughtful answer. Some of the dialogue between the doctor and the pregnant waitress – who try to stick to medical propriety while knowing how they feel about each other – has a droll effect. And Andy Griffith does a nice turn as the restaurant owner, a rich codger who isn’t as curmudgeonly as he wants everybody to think he is.

Maybe the thing that most contributes to the original feel of the movie is the fact that the waitress, although she has committed to carry the baby to term, makes no secret of the fact that she doesn’t want it. She finds herself composing some very conflicted letters to that little creature in her womb. So it comes as a sad note, in the credits, to find out that  writer-director Adrienne Shelly, who also acted as one of the waitresses, was murdered in November, 2006. (An illegal immigrant and construction worker confessed to the crime.) On top of the tragedy of anyone’s dying that way, there is the loss of all the other unusual works this woman may have had in mind.

Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard

A reference to this book, a spin-off of a newspaper article, intrigued me. But it must have been a pretty skimpy article. On digging up the book at my local bookstore, I find that it's about 50 pages long -- very thick pages, to make it seem more like a book. Each of the ten rules is articulated in a couple of sentences on its own page, with lots of white space, then maybe there are a couple of follow-up pages. The  sections on each rule are interspersed with cartoon-ish drawings. Go ahead and buy the book if you want to (about $17 in Canada) but I got full value from it standing in the bookstore and reading from cover to cover in about ten minutes. Which is not to say that the rules aren't good. I follow them all the time. (Mimimal description, don't start with the weather, don't use any verb other than "said" to indicate dialogue, etc.) But the most important rule the book teaches aspiring writers is implicit: become rich and famous  and then they'll publish your every thought in hard covers.

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